One of the joys of animation as an art form is its ability to convey practically infinite possibilities; if it can be imagined, it can likely be realised. Storytelling isn't anchored to the laws of nature. In fact, rejecting such laws are what draws artists and audiences to animation, and one kind of storytelling recurrent in animation is the anthropomorphising of the non-human. Toys and animals, even food, are obvious, but some of the most inventive have been humanising the very laws of nature animation is allowed to reject. They were experimenting with this back in 1940 with the Sound Track sequence in 'Fantasia', and in recent years Pixar Animation Studios have made it a staple of their animated features and shorts. Their beloved 2015 masterpiece 'Inside Out' reimagined human emotions as active characters, the 2018 short 'Bao' used food as a metaphor for the fears of parenting, and their complex 2020 film 'Soul' attempted to physicalise the human soul. It comes as little surprise then that with 'Elemental', their latest animated feature, the studio should take on the natural elements of fire, water, earth and air, but perhaps that's the first problem - it's so unsurprising as to be almost uninspiring.
Set in a city where the four elements live together, the film follows Ember (Leah Lewis, 'The Half of it'), a young Fire woman who helps run her family shop in the Fire district. Her parents Bernie (Ronnie Del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi, Apple TV+'s 'Tehran') emigrated to the city before Ember was born, but found their Fire culture incompatible with the Water, Earth and Air communities, who regard their elemental nature as something to fear. Ember expects to take over the family business, but this is thrown into chaos when her temper causes an unexpected water leak in the shop where water shouldn't be. This attracts the attention of a young Water inspection officer Wade (Mamoudou Athie, 'Jurassic World: Dominion'), who decides to help Ember track down the suspicious source of the water leak. The more time they spend together, the more Ember and Wade begin to fall for one another, much to Bernie's disapproval, conflicting with the inherent belief that Fire and Water cannot work together. Forced to face the future she truly wants, Ember must choose between the future her family desires and the one in her own heart.
SWITCH: 'ELEMENTAL' TRAILER
If this all sounds strangely convoluted, you've hit upon the first of many problems with 'Elemental'. Let's just take it as read that the film looks incredible (at this stage, this is the one thing we know we can expect from Pixar), but the visual richness of the film is not its issue. The problems with 'Elemental' are foundational and extensive - it's a flimsy premise rendered into one of the most frustrating and unsatisfying Pixar films we've seen yet. The synopsis above doesn't even scratch the surface of the multiple plot threads running through the film, tangling themselves up into a mess that you soon realise will either never resolve themselves, while other threads are forgotten entirely.
To begin with, while the premise is kind of cute, its basic elements feel derivative. The setting is the world of 'Zootopia' but without the animals; the characters feel like weak imitations of the ones from 'Inside Out', but without the complexity; and the narrative has obvious nods to 'Romeo and Juliet', but never in a way that surprises or enthrals. You can't help but feel you've seen this film before, and the screenplay itself doesn't do anything to change that feeling. There's a certain degree with which the audience must suspend their disbelief when it comes to animation. We can't really think too much about how Mrs Potts doesn't shatter all over the place or how a world can be entirely populated by cars, but there has to be an internal logic to the world, certain rules that define how characters can behave and how threats can manifest. 'Elemental' only tackles these issues until they become too difficult to justify then moves onto something else, leaving you scratching your head at how all this works. Why can Ember cause some things to heat up, but not others? Why is her heat a threat to Wade at only certain moments? Why are only some elements sentient and some not? What about weather; how does that work? Are the storms that force Ember's parents from their home also sentient and thus antagonistic? I am not one of those people who obsesses over details like this in animation (they're just cars, who cares?), but the stitching that holds the logic of 'Elemental' together is so unstable that the more you pull on a thread, the more the film threatens to unravel. You can only ignore these issues to a point before they start to become distracting.
This then brings us to the screenplay itself, a baffling mess of story and ideas that ultimately just smother one another. There's great potential in the romance between Ember and Wade (weirdly one of the few instances where romance is placed at the forefront of a Pixar film), particularly when you add the circumstances of love across cultural boundaries, but neither the screenplay nor the film know how to handle everything happening around them. You're contending with the shop, the culture clash, red-tape bureaucracy and Ember's personal ambitions, along with a mystery about how there's water in the Fire district that has mysteriously appeared in the first place, a mystery that the film basically abandons. As a result, most of the dialogue is there to deliver exposition, even when exposition is entirely unnecessary. 'Elemental' has some of the worst writing in a Pixar film, clunky and obvious and almost entirely devoid of character. If the narrative feels derivative, then this extends to the characters. All of them function as stereotypes, even down to their personal traumas. Moments of romance or drama feel like they've been ripped and repurposed from other Pixar films, to the point where even the most beautiful moments have little wonder. You keep waiting for the film to click in and give you something to engage with, but an hour in, you're struck with the realisation that this is never going to happen. It just keeps writing itself into circles, struggling to find an inventive or imaginative way out.
'Elemental' has some of the worst writing in a Pixar film, clunky and obvious and almost entirely devoid of character. If the narrative feels derivative, then this extends to the characters. All of them function as stereotypes, even down to their personal traumas.
The most baffling element of 'Elemental' thought is its unexpected Orientalism. Ember and her family are strongly coded as culturally diverse, in particular Middle Eastern. In more careful hands this idea could have worked, but the way the Fire culture is presented is as lacking in specificity as the rest of the film, and instead comes across as a strange hodgepodge of ethnic cultural identities, serving none and badly representing all. There's even a sacred value flame the Fire family carries around with them that is "the source of their family's strength" (what the hell does this mean? The film never explains) and Ember's mother is some sort of psychic who can smell love on others?! By adding mysticism into the mix, this pushes the film further into uncomfortable Orientalist stereotyping, something the film does not take the time to anchor in any kind of reality. This isn't like James Cameron pulling from Pacific cultures to construct a new fictional culture with its own language, customs and biodiversity linked to environment; this is wishy-washy otherness, obviously with good intentions, but not adequately anchored or interrogated. It doesn't help that the racism directed at the Fire people by the other elements is never interrogated; in fact, Wade's white-coded family is much quicker to accept Ember than her family is accepting of him, resulting in the ethnically-coded community to appear the most intolerant and causing the commentary on xenophobia and culture clash to crumble even further. Again, comparisons to 'Zootopia' feel pertinent, particularly when that film gave space to explore the ugliness of these issues while 'Elemental' seems to want to dance around them - or worse, assume they are inherent and don't need to be explored. Director Peter Sohn (director of the charming if slight 'The Good Dinosaur') has said that film was inspired by the struggles of his own parents who emigrated to the United States from Korea. There's clearly a story here he feels passionate about telling and one worth telling, and this isn't to say that the canvas 'Elemental' offers couldn't have done it, but this kind of lazy othering or Orientalism just isn't it.
Pixar have been a conundrum for a good long while. The triple hit of 'Soul', 'Luca' and 'Turning Red' gave some hope that they were entering a new era of exciting and daring work, but 'Elemental' has the same tired storytelling that made 'Onward', 'The Good Dinosaur' and 'Coco' so frustrating - a nice idea stretched beyond its limits into a wheel-spinning mess. It's hard to know what their future looks like; even after the calamities of 'Toy Story 4' and 'Lightyear', the unnecessary sequel/prequel trend that kneecapped them post-'Toy Story 3' looks to continue. Have they run out of stories to tell? Do they not have the people to tell them? Has Disney's ownership of the once-independent studio suffocated their creativity? Has the oil in the machine just drained away? It's hard to know. Films like 'Luca' and 'Turning Red' certainly give some hope that new classics might be on the horizon for Pixar, but 'Elemental' certainly isn't one of them. Uninspired and difficult to engage with, it's one of the weakest films in the Pixar canon.